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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Steven N. Popoff

News September 24, 2021

Dr. PopoffThree years ago, after decades of basic science research into the cell and molecular mechanisms involved in the development of skeletal tissues, Steven N. Popoff, PhD, began to scale back his research and pivot toward full-time teaching. Not long afterward, students chose him for a Golden Apple teaching award. And this spring, he won a coveted Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching, the highest recognition for excellence in teaching at Temple University.

In July, he was named Chair of the new Department of Biomedical Education and Data Science at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine, the school’s first department of full-time educators.

Asked what defines an exemplary teacher, Dr. Popoff said:

“It’s teaching from the heart that matters most. You have to be passionate about what you are teaching. You need to bring your subject to life for your students — form connections between yourself, your students, and your subject matter — make it something they get really excited about and get engaged in learning.”

It's also important, he said, that students believe that their professors are invested in their students’ success. Dr. Popoff makes a point of telling his students he is available to them at any time via email or text.

“They need somebody who is going to listen to them, provide advice and encouragement,” he said. “Teaching is not about having authority. It’s about facilitating learning. If students know I’m there for them, that’s probably the most important thing.”

Dr. Popoff, who has twice served as chair of the medical school’s Curriculum Committee, says medical education is “at a crossroads” due to the explosion of knowledge and the limited amount of time available to students to learn.

One of ways the Katz School has accommodated this pressure is to truncate the pre-clerkship period, the first phase of medical school when students learn the basic science of medicine. This allows more time for the clerkship and clinical elective training, where students learn to diagnose and treat patients, and will help them determine what field to pursue in residency training.

Another trend is the transition in the pre-clerkship phase to a more fully “integrated” curriculum, one that teaches medical students not only basic science principles, but also their clinical relevance. In the Human Anatomy course that he teaches, the first course that first-year medical students take, Dr. Popoff makes sure that students begin to grasp the clinical relevance of the myriad parts of the body they’re identifying. “That is what is going to resonate with them,” he said.

“You cannot teach in silos anymore,” Dr. Popoff said. “You cannot just teach anatomy or biochemistry or physiology because, in reality, all of these disciplines merge together in diagnosing and treating patients.”


Popoff with Students

Teaching teams now include basic scientists and clinicians who collaborate to develop the curriculum.

Dr. Popoff supports the transition away from lecture-based learning toward more actively engaged teaching constructs, such as case-based problem-solving, which Temple calls clinical reasoning conferences. In this method, students working in small groups use the basic principles and information they’ve been taught to answer questions and solve clinical problems. In the process, they learn to synthesize information, just as they will do when treating patients.

“The most important thing you can do in the early curriculum is to get students to understand how to use information,” he said.

These major trends in medical school education dovetail with the recent reorganization of departments at the Katz School of Medicine. Before July, Dr. Popoff had served as Chair of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology – which is now enfolded into the new department he chairs: the Department Biomedical Education and Data Science, which also includes physiology, microbiology, pharmacology, and immunology. In addition to integrating these essential pillars of medical science, the department faculty are full-time educators. Most do not divide their time between teaching and research. He sees all these changes as essential to effective teaching in an integrated curriculum.

“You take the faculty with expertise in these disciplines but teach in a way that merges all that expertise together. Students need all this knowledge to be able to figure out what’s going on when you’re working through cases,” he said.

Included within the new department is the Center for Biostatistics and Epidemiology, led by Susan Fisher, PhD, which speaks to its importance to a strong foundation in science in the medical student curriculum, he said.

Dr. Popoff acknowledged the challenges inherent in directing a department composed of formerly independent departments, but he’s undaunted. “The group of faculty in this department is really a great group of people. The challenge I’ve put forth for all of us is that we really need to think outside the box. We have to be willing to get out of our comfort zones, take risks, be innovative in our thinking,” he said.

The faculty is relatively small and shoulders a broad teaching load. (They also teach dental students, podiatry students, physician assistant students and post-baccalaureate students.) Nevertheless, Dr. Popoff encourages them to find time to publish – essential for educational scholarship — and to get involved in national medical education committees. “How to find the proper balance that allows the faculty to fulfill our obligation for teaching yet still find time to fulfill these other aims are all good challenges,” he said.

In his own spare time at his home in Warrington, he enjoys working with his hands on remodeling or rebuilding projects. He relaxes by fishing, kayaking and lately he has taken up stand-up paddle boarding.

Dr. Popoff said his passion for teaching began 40 years ago when he was running a lab at Loyola University in Chicago and realized how much he enjoyed explaining genetics to fellow undergraduates. Asked what he loved most about teaching, he said:

“It’s the satisfaction I get watching students grow and being able to help them learn. When I’m explaining things to them and I see the light go on and they understand, it’s just something I’ve always had a real passion for doing.”

- Lillian Swanson